The Historical Development Of English Prose -- By: Theodore W. Hunt

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 063:249 (Jan 1906)
Article: The Historical Development Of English Prose
Author: Theodore W. Hunt

The Historical Development Of English Prose

Prof. Theodore W. Hunt

As a matter of history, prose is of later origin than verse,, both in English and general literature. This refers, however, to standard prose as compared with standard verse, it being true that the initial and immature forms of prose are nearly, if not quite, as early as those of poetry. This is signally true in English Literature. It may further be stated that there is a principle of development in literature, historical and logical; at times, concealed, and, at times, revealed; a development demanding time for its expression and indicating orderly succession and gradation. It is, in line, the principle of evolution in literature applied to the special province of prose. It is thus that Earle speaks of the first, second, and third “Culminations,” of our vernacular prose, as reached, respectively, in the tenth, fifteenth, and nineteenth centuries. By this it is meant that our English Prose must be studied in its regular, historic un-foldings, and, especially, in those standard periods, or “Culminations,” where the literary life of the nation came to its fullest expression. Viewing our prose, therefore, as a growth, and emphasizing the term “historical,” as applied to it, we may reach our result the soonest by following, chronologically, the course of the centuries, from the days of Alfred to those of Victoria and Edward the Seventh.

The first period is that of Old English, dating from the first

invasion of Germanic tribes, in 447 a.d., to the Norman Conquest of 1066, an initial and experimental period, more vital than national, in every sense preparative and tentative. Old-English Prose did indeed exist centuries prior to the Conquest, but strictly as an Old-English type, expressed in a text and under grammatical forms practically unknown to the modern English student. Earle and others insist, at one extreme, that English Prose dates from the fifth century. “It will, I fear,” he writes, “sound strange if I assert that we possess a longer pedigree of prose literature than any other nation in Europe, and that if we seek to trace it up to its starting point we are not brought to a stand until we have mounted up to the very earliest times, past the threshold of English Christianity out into the heathen times beyond, and are close up to the first struggle of the invasion,” close up, he would say, to the entrance of the Jutes in the middle of the fifth century. At the other extreme, Matthew Arnold insists that our prose dates its first actual appearance in the seventeenth century, though he concedes that this later prose is a “re-appearance” of what had existed far back of the days of Chaucer. Each of t...

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